In downtown Merida, there is a small shop, una refresqueria, that sells soft drinks, water, salty chips, and assorted cookies wrapped in bright shiny paper. For those who are on foot, and feeling the effects of the merciless sun, the unpretentious pit-stop has the allure of an oasis. ¡Agua por favor!
The proprietor or his wife always urge their weary customers to sit down on one of the chairs lined up along the back wall. Many gratefully accept the small kindness, and once they start feeling the welcome effect of the restorative liquid, they notice their surroundings. Hanging above the counter is a striking photograph of a withered old crone, and underneath the portrait, hangs a hand-written sign:
You haven’t truly experienced El Centro until you’ve been hit across the back of your head by Yaya.
Yaya? What kind of name is that? And why would this person be whacking others across the head?” they ask.
No one knows where Yaya comes from. I would guess she’s probably in her mid 60s, but I can’t confirm that with her because she’s profoundly deaf and cannot speak. I often notice how she winces as her bowed legs propel her through downtown’s congested streets. Yaya has an aversion to bathing, and as well, she is obviously schizophrenic.
Nonetheless Yaya has found ways to cope for what she lacks in conventional communication skills. She caws like a crow and her arms flail in the air when she wants something. Her eyes keenly observe everything that comes into her line of vision. By our criteria of ownership, Yaya does not have anything of value. But from her point of view, that is just not true. She collects discarded cardboard boxes, fills them with scraps of this & that, and wherever she goes, she pushes them along in front of herself. Sometimes she amasses many, and obviously, keeping them all together is a struggle. But don’t ever make the mistake of trying to help her; she’s independent and suspicious of anyone getting too close to her belongings.
Yaya has a job she takes seriously. Every morning she goes to the back door of a furniture and appliance store and receives a handful of flyers that she passes out on the street. And that’s where the whack on the back of your head can occur; she doesn’t take kindly to a refusal to accept her paper advertisements. When she has distributed the daily quota, I’ve been told that she uses the employee restroom and the manager gives her ten pesos. The merchants in her radius, including the couple from the small shop, give her food and drink. Periodically a trio of ladies from the Catholic Action League convince her to let them help her have a bath, and then they give her a set of clean clothes. When she is sick, the local pharmacy gives her a remedy for what ails her.
At night, Yaya corrals her boxes and sleeps on the sidewalk well out of the wind. She has a big blanket, a Christmas gift from someone, to cover herself. She steadfastly refuses the social workers’ attempts to place her in a facility where she would be safer and healthier . Why? I imagine she knows she won’t be happier.
This description of Yaya is written in present tense, but in fact, Yaya is no longer to be seen limping through Merida’s Centro. Nor are her buddies, a collection of other street people. Just before our city inaugurated the latest entertainment venue, El Palacio de la Musica, the “kings and queens of the road” disappeared. Their song was not wanted anywhere near the spiffy new palace.
And I think that’s sad. As most people know, for many years, the peninsula of Yucatan was separated from the rest of the country by extensive swamp lands. Before the highway to Mexico City was completed in the 1960’s, the journey inland was difficult, long and expensive, so residents did not often leave. This nurtured a strong regional identity; Yucatecans were happy with their tropical, slower-paced lifestyle. They enjoyed a way of life that was all their own, and as long as they were not dangerous, the locals had no animosity towards the eccentric street people like Yaya.
Now many people from other parts of the country have moved to Merida, and from other countries too. They have brought their customs, foods, businesses, music and attitudes with them. The explosive growth of the peninsula’s tourism industry has also greatly affected the tranquility of the Yucatecan lifestyle. The local population likes some of these changes, but do not appreciate the erosion of their established way of life. Today, after approximately 35 years of steady migration, Merida is a cosmopolitan city that is home to many. Yucatecans are pragmatic and have found a way to deal with this.
But that is not to say they like being put in this position. Improvements to the infrastructure, and to the appearance of some of the city’s traditional neighbourhoods, was badly needed, but is gentrification of everything desirable? I think people like Yaya and businesses like the soda shop make our city more humane and authentic.
Maybe all of us should be a bit more judicious before we accept the building of more malls, hotels and re-dos of every house on the block. And we would also do well to remember the more gentile manners of decades past in Yucatan. Fast-passed, and cutting-edge makes for more stress; never missing siesta would be healthier than getting the shopping “done” during the heat of the day.
If we work too hard at getting our adopted home too convenient, we’ll be living in the place we left.